Archive for March, 2010

A Hipster’s Guide to Henry Kissinger

“All the geeks are Nixon appointees.” – Roy Cohn in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

For hipsters, those champions of the ever-current and ever-obscure in the realms of pop culture, liking things comes with a gigantic heap of irony.  If hipsters can drink Pabst Blue Ribbon while wearing a My Little Pony™ t-shirt, can they also like Republican politicians ironically.  Hipsters sure know a lot about [insert current band name here], but what about Henry Kissinger, the Elder Statesman of the Right and champion of such foreign policy concepts like “linkage,” “the balance of power,” and the “madman theory” (originally the idea of Daniel Ellsburg).

How much do you know about international relations?

This guide works as a précis for the hipster.  Remember, knowledge in foreign policy and international relations adds to your Cool Factor™.  Knowing the line-up of the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and owning all their singles is cool and all, unless you can’t find Uzbekistan on a map.  Then you’re no cooler than those drones outside TRL and the Today Show.

(Since this author is in his thirties, lives in between urban metropolises, and is a resident of a Midwestern state, the epithet “hipster” does not apply.  But this author is also committed to educating the kids these days with their iPods and loungecore music or whatever they call it.)

Dr. Henry Kissinger has had a storied career.  Born in Germany, his family immigrated to the United States to escape the tyranny of Nazi Germany.  (Germany had socialized health care before the rise of National Socialism … and after.  So … yeah.)  After working in Army Intelligence during World War II, Kissinger taught International Relations at Harvard.  During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations he worked as a “consultant.”  He wrote extensively about foreign policy in the nuclear age.

“What a funny little government.”  John D. Rockefeller.  Political cartoon from 1899.  Oil companies and government, an American tradition.  You didn’t think Cheney and Bush were the first ones to cash in on this?

In the 1968 Presidential election, Kissinger backed East Coast Elite Nelson Rockefeller.  (Rockefeller, a scion of John D. Rockefeller, belonged to a hyper-wealthy oil dynasty that helped build Rockefeller Center, the mouth of the American Pop Culture Mainstream.  It is also where Liz Lemon works.)  Following the Nixon win, Kissinger was brought on as National Security Adviser.  He kept this position throughout Nixon’s first term and into the second.  Following the slow-motion disaster of the Watergate Scandal – in actuality a ever-widening constellation of break-ins, cover-ups, staff shake-ups, and domestic intelligence abuses – Kissinger ended up as the only one standing.  Everyone else, from the President on down, either resigned in disgrace or did time.

Prior to the scandalous apocalypse, Kissinger ascended to the position of Secretary of State.  He held this position until 1976 during the benighted Ford Administration.  With numerous accolades and achievements (depending on who you ask) and a shiny new Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger hit the private sector as an “elder statesman.”  Occasionally Kissinger reappears from private life and the lucrative glories of Henry Kissinger & Associates.  (If you want your investment firm to expand into areas occupied by US-friendly despots, dictators, and authoritarians, give him a call.)

Kissinger represents a unique figure at the crossroads of pop culture and politics.  As a foreign-born, Ivy League-educated, East Coast elitist, he represented everything Nixon was not.  To the Birchers, Tea Party Patriots, and ideologues of the Far Right like Roy Cohn and Pats Buchanan and Robertson, Kissinger did not represent “the Real America.”  (Whatever that is?  Am I right, folks?)  However, the intellectual Kissinger and the paranoid Nixon had personalities and ambitions oddly, strangely, perversely in sync.  Both nurtured the tough guy persona (Nixon wanted to be seen as Patton; Kissinger wanted the United States in a strong negotiating position), both wanted to win at any cost, and both used wiretaps to plug leaks in the name of “national security.”

Because of Kissinger’s eventful career and caricaturist physiognomy, he’s been portrayed as everything from the Funny Foreign Guy to The Evil Jewish Puppet-master.

In Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995), Kissinger is played by Paul Sorvino.  Sorvino memorably played Paulie, the Mafia boss in Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas (1990).  At first sight it seems odd to cast the giant Italian-American actor as the German-born Jewish-American National Security Adviser, although it must have made sense to Stone.  Unfortunately, the effect seems like that of stunt-casting.  Anthony Hopkins, no stranger to menacing roles (like, say, Hannibal Lecter and Titus Andronicus), plays Nixon.

Four years later, in another film about Nixon, Saul Rubinek plays Henry Kissinger.  Rubinek, a notable character actor you’ve probably seen before, played the comical role with an uncanny accuracy.  Like Kissinger, Rubinek is a German-born Jewish-American.  His squat pudgy body fits that of the Nobel Prize winner.

A more recent depiction of Kissinger is Dr. Killinger (and his Magic Murder Bag) on the Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Bros.  Dr. Henry Killinger has, according to the Venture Bros. Wiki, expert organizational skills and his “suspiciously mysterious” motivations.  In the show, he quickly became the Monarch’s number two.

Dr. Henry Killinger and his Magic Murder Bag.

Kissinger has also been the subject of numerous political cartoons.  Depending on the source and their intention, they either play up his murderous past and/or his Jewishness.  One does not need to sniff the heady brew of conspiracy theory to accuse Kissinger of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity.  At least to this writer (and one hopes to the rest of the populace one can deem sane), Kissinger’s Jewishness is immaterial to his crimes and misdemeanors.  Whether or not Kissinger should be charged for the decisions he made in office is up to the individual and the vagaries of the sovereign immunity laws that protect government officials from lawsuits.  If you are protected by litigation by the very people you’re supposed to represent, how does that encourage good governance?  Best leave that sort of discussion to the frothing pundits and talking empty heads who lower our political discourse to that of a middle school food fight.

Kissinger and Doctor Doom

As if he’s the only one …

Kissinger’s influence is felt to this day.

Kissinger and Dolly Parton.


Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, by Francis Wheen

Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia is a rollicking adventure set in the Seventies.  The title should give the reader a clue to the tone of the piece.  Calling the Seventies “the Golden Age of Paranoia” with tongue firmly set in cheek, Wheen brings together everything from global politics, literature, and film.  Bouncing between the drunken paranoia of President Nixon to the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the lunatic butchery of Idi Amin, one gets the impression that indeed “the world [is] on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”

Wheen’s work captures the Zeitgeist of the decade.  He occasionally adds his own memories combining with a journalist’s knack to create a feeling of immediacy.  From his British perspective, he offers stories and figures not well known to those readers across the pond.  Included are the strange behavior of former Prime Minister Edward Heath and the farce of the Oz decency trial.  The latter seems like an odd addition to a book chock-full of political paranoia and conspiracies.  However, it does illustrate how paranoia became an everyday feeling, with proper bluestocking shocked that longhaired hippies would publish a magazine espousing an “alternate lifestyle.”  All the more ironic since society had no problem with business suit-clad entrepreneurs churning out far worse in pornographic magazines.

Besides politics and pornography, Wheen also examines the literature produced in the decade.  The seminal postmodern novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was released at the height of the Watergate hearings.  Conspiracy theories abounded, most notably in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea.  Prolific science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose fiction in the Fifties contained paranoia and identity crises, finally went insane.  The copious psychotropic drugs made for a deadly combination, especially when he thought his fiction was becoming reality.  With the FBI spying and infiltrating leftist groups, Dick and the paranoid hippies were actually telling the truth when they thought they saw FBI agents behind every mailbox.

In the heady atmosphere of conspiracy, people begin seeing patterns that may or may not exist.  Besides elements of the far right thinking Edward Heath and Henry Kissinger were KGB agents, one only has to look as far as Gerald Ford to connect the dots.  As a congressman, Ford participated in the Warren Commission, presenting to the public a lone gunmen and “a magic bullet.”  Nearly a decade later, following Nixon’s resignation, he promptly pardons the disgraced president.  To some, Ford epitomizes government whitewash.  The constant refrain of the conspiracy-minded is “Only connect.”  Or in the memorable words of All the President’s Men, “Follow the money.”  Depending who you talk to, there exists ironclad evidence of conspiracy and intrigue.  To others, the events can be explained away as coincidence.  Wheen lets the reader make up his or her own mind.

Nixon Now!

March 9, 2010 1 comment

Richard Nixon’s entire political career was dedicated to convincing the American people that their eyes were deceiving them.  Unlike almost every major political figure in the modern era, Nixon could never hide his pathological lust for power or his crippling inferiority complex from the public.  That constant five o’clock shadow, the beads of sweat hanging from his upper lip, the hunched shoulders, his whole physical being radiated a naked hunger that should have sent John Q. Public running for the hills.  So the man who got the nickname “Tricky Dick” when he was still in congress, spent twenty years, first as Vice President, then in a succession of desperate bids for the presidency, trying to hide behind a slickly crafted television image.  Journalist Joe McGuiness wrote an entire book, The Selling of the President, 1968, about Nixon’s loyal army of image consultants (including a young, casually racist Roger Ailes) and their Herculean efforts to make RMN seem like a regular guy who wouldn’t rip the throat out of your grandmother for the keys to the White House.  It shouldn’t have worked, especially after Nixon’s spiteful kiss-off to the press following his defeat by Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial election.

That barely-restrained bitterness, that shark-like smile, after a decade in the national spotlight keeping his demons at bay, the sting of electoral defeat (his second in two years!) weakened him too much to keep the guard up for another second.  He just had to let the jackals in the press know how he felt before slinking into what he had to have thought at the time was political oblivion.

But after the Kennedy assassination, the ’64 LBJ landslide, the  explosion of the anti-Vietnam and Civil rights movements, as America slide towards all-out generational conflict and nervous breakdown, Nixon’s particular brand of white middle class resentment began to look strangely appealing to that soon-to-be named “silent majority.” Still, if only for the benefit of his enemies in the press, Nixon still had to rehabilitate his image if he wanted to be taken seriously as a candidate in 1968.  What better way than to give the impression that he had a sense of humor about himself on a hip young comedy show?

Thanks to the mood of social unraveling, Nixon didn’t have to tone down his bile too much to appeal to the alienated middle class white masses.

Nixon was also aided by the human willingness to give our political figures the benefit of the doubt.  There’ s no way Nixon is as grasping and twitchy as he seems. After a narrow victory over born chump Hubert Humphrey and a first term marked by mass murder in Southeast Asia and widespread illegal surveillance and political dirty tricks on the homefront, Nixon had loosened up enough to make a play for the young people in 1972 with his uncharacteristically upbeat “Nixon Now!” campaign.

Nixon won in a historic landslide, and would have gone on to a triumphant second term chock full of visits to China, Paris Peace Accords, and an economy held together with baling wire and scotch tape just long enough to keep from collapsing on his watch.  Then, thanks to a third-rate burglary, some shoe leather reporting, and, most importantly, the revelation of the existence of an Oval Office taping system, Nixon’s true nature, which was just as paranoid and vicious and rage-fueled as that upper-lip sweat suggested back at the 1960 presidential debate, came oozing to the surface.

It was the fall-out from Watergate that created the modern character of “Richard Nixon” that we all know and love from innumerable film and television representations.  Because the Oval Office tapes were made public, we know more about the inner life of Nixon than any other president, and what we know comports to a remarkable degree with the slew of exaggerated physical tics and almost monstrous facial features that always suggested a terrible inner turmoil.  In short, he’s an actor’s dream. Playing Nixon gives an actor the chance to let fly with all the theatrical gestures that have been out of style since Brando.  When you’re playing Nixon, though, playing to the rafters IS playing it realistic, and it’s no wonder that a slab of honey-baked ham like Anthony Hopkins jumped at the chance to slick his hair back and bare his incisors in Oliver Stone’s Nixon.

Even the great character actor Philip Baker Hall, who has had a late career renaissance playing desperately unhappy men in P.T. Anderson movies, let loose with both barrels when he played Nixon in the 1984 one-man show directed by Robert Altman, Secret Honor.

For all the mugging and overacting that goes into these performances, they’re driven by a fascination with the character of Richard Nixon that comes from having lived through the dramatic pageantry and horror of his political career.  It’s that fascination that drives the scaberous satire of Altman and the overly earnest operatics of Oliver Stone.

For the generation that came after Watergate, Nixon’s pathos, not to mention awareness of the real damage he caused to America and the countless lives he destroyed, no longer registers.  Instead, we are left with only the caricature. In 1999, a couple of screenwriters who were less than ten years only when the Watergate hearings happened made the film Dick, in which Dan Hedaya turns Nixon from a tormented, crypto-fascist mass murderer to a cartoon goofball.

It’s an iron-clad law of nature: yesterday’s tragic and mighty historical figures will become tomorrow’s one-note punchline.  (In case you weren’t aware, Nixon’s first name is also a slang term for the male reproductive member)

Thankfully, the good people at Futurama remember enough about the real Richard Nixon to ground their comedy in a sense of the historical context.  Anyone who’s read the Oval Office transcripts of Nixon talking to Kissinger about the possible deaths of civilians in Vietnam, saying “You’re so goddamn concerned about civilians and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.” would totally believe that he’d sell our children’s organs to zoos for meat.

It’s sobering to realize that the image of Nixon as a paranoid sack of whiskey and hatred has only survived to become cliche because we all got a chance to hear him speak behind closed doors on those damn tapes.  Regardless of the butchery in Southeast Asia, the rampant domestic spying, the casual corruption, the seething racism and anti-semitism, all of Nixon’s worst traits would have remained a mystery in the absence of the Watergate tapes.  The Watergate scandal itself would likely have gone away without seriously damaging Nixon’s presidency if Alexander Butterfield hadn’t spilled the beans to congress about the existence of the taping system.  Without the unprecedented exposure of his most private conversations, Nixon would probably have retired at the end of his second term as a respected elder statesman and foreign policy guru…sort of like Henry Kissinger.  It makes you wonder how old Hank would have fared if we could have had a listen to his phone calls.

A picture is worth a thousand words

You’re not dreaming, that is a Red Bull logo on the nose of the MiG-15.  Also notice the iconic hammer and sickle on the tail.  Instead of the usual snark and commentary, I will just let this image speak for itself.